The news about reader attention and the evolution of media isn’t all bad — there’s the “hill of Wow”

Reading on the desert

Sometimes it seems as though the future of online media is a fairly bleak one: an ocean of clickbait and shallow pageview-driven articles, all of them chasing the dwindling juice that social-network algorithms provide, with scattered chunks of longform journalism drifting aimlessly, unable to get the attention they deserve. But is that a realistic picture of where we are? Betaworks CEO John Borthwick says it isn’t — and says he has the data from services like Chartbeat and Instapaper to prove that things aren’t as bad as they seem.

As Borthwick notes in a post on Medium, the most recent debate on this topic flared up a couple of months ago, sparked by a post from Facebook product manager Mike Hudack that lamented the state of online media, and how much of the content that was being produced even by “serious” media outlets was shallow clickbait:

“Personally I hoped that we would find a new home for serious journalism in a format that felt Internet-native and natural to people who grew up interacting with screens instead of just watching them from couches with bags of popcorn and a beer to keep their hands busy. And instead they write stupid stories about how you should wash your jeans instead of freezing them. It’s hard to tell who’s to blame. But someone should fix this shit.”

Partly Facebook’s fault, but not completely

In the hue-and-cry that followed, a number of journalists, bloggers and others (including our founder Om and me) noted that Facebook was part of the problem that Hudack was complaining about, since its algorithm has become one of the central points of control that determine what kinds of news people see online. And for all of the effort that the giant social network has put into trying to focus on promoting “high quality” content, the reality is that much of what people like to share just happens to be shallow, click-driven content.

In his post, Borthwick — who has been involved in tracking the social web and online media world from a variety of perspectives, by investing in or starting services like Bitly, Chartbeat, News.me and Digg — described one recent cautionary tale: the story about how a piece of software had beaten the legendary Turing test, by pretending to be a 14-year-old boy. As it turned out, the story was fatally flawed to the point where it was essentially not true, but by the time anyone pointed this out it had been shared and tweeted and linked to hundreds of thousands of times.

As the Betaworks CEO notes (and as Om and I have pointed out a number of times), the social-distribution system that has been built up around the news — a system that is now arguably as important or even more important than search –favors shareability, not analysis. That’s why Om has argued that we all need to be aware of what we share, and take the time to think about whether it deserves our attention or not. Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile has pointed out that his data shows that much of what people share is content that they haven’t even read. As Borthwick notes:

“We have a dominant social distribution system that favors sharablility… it is biased towards speed, and that bias is short circuiting fact checking?–?as the Turing example shows. And in the case of Facebook it’s mediated by algorithms that aren’t transparent. Algorithmically created news stories, mediated by algorithms, shared by people, people who are barely reading these posts. If we can all just get services like Socialflow to do our sharing?–?we humans can completely quit this loop.”

Algorithms creating and sharing content

Algorithmically created news stories — thanks to services like Narrative Science and Automated Insights, which AP is now using for earnings stories — mediated by the black-box algorithms of networks like Twitter and Facebook, shared as quickly as possible by people who haven’t even read them. It may not be Orwell’s “boot stamping on a human face forever,” but that’s a pretty bleak vision. But Borthwick argues there is still some reason for optimism about media.

According to a chart from Upworthy, which tracks a metric it calls “attention minutes,” there is a significant burst of sharing that comes from people who have barely read a piece of content — behavior that is likely driven by short-term effects such as a clickbait headline, catchy video clip or GIF, etc. Then there is a low point where many people don’t make it all the way through a piece, and don’t really share it much either. But there is also a large upswing on both reader attention (or time spent) and sharing that occurs at the far end of the graph, something Borthwick calls “the hill of Wow,” as opposed to the “valley of Meh.”

Upworthy attention chart

There is still the hill of Wow

What this seems to show is that a significant number of people are willing to spend significant amounts of time with articles that are relatively long, and are willing to share them — in other words, there is a demand for things other than just shallow clickbait. And looking at the data on the number of articles that are saved to Instapaper (which Betaworks acquired last year) seems to support this conclusion, Borthwick says:

“What we saw is interesting. Reads are increasing over time for all domains and for some domains they are increasing a lot. This suggests that the Wow hill of the curve is increasing, ie: some people are reading more, not less.”

So what we really have are two versions of the online-media world, both of which exist at the same time: one is the noisy, click-driven, social-sharing ecosystem, which favors speed and shareability — and is more noticeable because of all the Like buttons and Favorite meters and other share-tracking widgets — and the other is a deeper and less noticeable ecosystem of longform articles that people actually read, and likely get shared through slower forms of media such as email newsletters and what some have called “dark social.”

Borthwick argues (and I share this view) that businesses or people who focus on the right-hand side of the chart embedded above — the “hill of Wow,” in other words — may not rack up the huge pageview numbers or highly-visible sharing statistics, but ultimately they will build stronger businesses. As Betaworks data scientist Suman Deb Roy puts it in a quote that Borthwick includes: “The landscape of media content diffusion… is a hill-valley-hill of attention, and you’d probably do better sitting on the right hand hill. People sitting on the left hill appear to be more visible, but there are people on the right hill too. And the latter is growing.”

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Lenar Musin

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